Becoming the Face of Love: Seminarians Train to Minister to Prisoners

Becoming the Face of Love: Seminarians Train to Minister to Prisoners

“Like many new students,” says Adam Horstman, “I came to seminary desiring to learn about my faith, but even more, to learn how to put that faith into practice. Recognizing the significance of caring for the ones Jesus loves as well as the importance of preparing seminary students for a life of ministering to others, St. Vladimir’s Seminary provides a Prison Ministry Field Experience for first-year students in the Master of Divinity program. Thus, I was able to enter into the world of those who spend their days behind bars.”

The Prison Ministry Field Experience began as a glimmer in the mind of SVOTS Trustee Eric Namee about 18 months ago. It blossomed into a collaborative venture that included St Vladimir's administration, faculty, staff, trustees, the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry (OCPM), particularly Chaplain Patrick Tutella, and The Rev. Nicholas J. Solak, a SVOTS alumnus (M.Div. ’02 and D.Min. ‘08) and current rector of Holy Trinity Church in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

This past fall, sixteen incoming seminarians, along with one second-year seminarian—under the supervision of Frs. Nicholas and Chaplain Patrick—visited The Westchester County Department of Correction's Penitentiary Division, which houses males sentenced to prison terms of one year or less. The students went to the facility for six visits (plus an extensive orientation) and met in seminar on the seminary campus for six follow-up sessions. Prison visits were in the format of Bible studies; Fr. Nicholas led and modeled the first study, and seminarians led subsequent studies and small group discussions.

The fieldwork, according to seminarian Horstman, was life altering. “The prisons hunger for the Church to invite them to the table, for He came to call not the righteous, but sinners,” he reflected. “Spending time with prisoners joined their stories to ours. We bear these men in our hearts and lives. It is with great sadness but also much hope that we conclude our prison ministry experience. I hope that this great gift hides itself in our hearts until we leave this place to put our faith into action. I hope that we, in the words of Fr. Paul, a chaplain at the prison, ‘become the face of love.’ ”

Fr. Nicholas noted the importance of the field experience, saying, “Prison ministry is a part of parish life today. Our parishes are located in close proximity to prisons and jails—and some of these correctional institutions are large facilities with large inmate populations. They are in need of prison ministries. Additionally, our parishioners work in correctional settings or have family, friends, and neighbors experiencing some form of correctional supervision. It is important our seminarians receive a strong introduction to prison ministry so they can feel confident when they enter their pastoral ministry.” 

Fr. Nicholas had ten years of professional experience working in corrections prior to enrolling at St. Vladimir’s in September 1999: five years as a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and five years as a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. “But, mostly my experience in corrections has been coupled with parish ministry—I’m nine years now in parish life,” he explained.

“My correctional training was strongly influenced by Stanton Samenow, whose work Inside the Criminal Mind (1984) hugely influenced the Correctional Industry in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he continued. “I used that resource with the seminarians, and we also talked about the similarities and differences between doing bible studies in parish and prison settings. Further, we discussed some core pastoral counseling skills: active listening, disarming, and empathy.”